The Romanovsky Stain by Duke Zimmer

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Duke Zimmer is the pseudonym of a writer, producer, and director who has produced more than fifty nonfiction films and has written scores of newspaper and magazine articles. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent five years in Western Europe during the height of the Cold War as a counterintelligence agent with the 66th Military Intelligence Brigade. He served as a recon scout with the Echo Company of 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry. in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam from December 1969 to November 1970 when he was wounded in action.

The Romanovsky Stain: After Action Report (Tate Publishing, 320 pp., $4.50, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the first of five novels in a series featuring Jacob Steiner as the main character and narrator. Steiner shares much of his military history with his creator, having also served “a stint with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.” He says he left with enough shrapnel in his body to set off a metal detector seven feet away.

Steiner “got a gig with the CIA through a friend and former teammate in Vietnam, Daniel Bornaire,” Zimmer writes. “We called him Zippo, Zip for short.” Officially he was a trade rep, but unofficially he was a spy.

The Romanovsky Stain is a spy novel of the sort that all readers of spy novels are familiar with.  The hero starts off as a captive, chained to a pipe in the hold of a ship and hopeful that if he gets free, he might have a chance of making it to the side of the ship, jump overboard, and swim to shore. This sort of derring-do is fun to read about if it is made half-way believable. Zimmer—presumably drawing on his actual experiences—does make it both fun and believable.

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Zimmer

There is much mention of the Vietnam War in this book, including one character saying in passing, “the toughest job in Nam was being a nurse.” There’s also this comment about high-tech weapons: “If we’d had this stuff in Nam, there’s no telling.” John Wayne gets a mention, and typical nicknames are used for characters, such as “Pinto,” who has a wine stain birthmark on his face.

My favorite comment in this book about the war is that “in Vietnam, we often slept with one eye open. People don’t believe it’s possible. Believe me, it is.” Maybe Tarzan could do it, but it’s hard to believe that recon teams in the bush would get any real sleep, one-eyed or two. If you do believe that anyone can sleep with one eye open, perhaps this is the book for you.

There will be four more of them featuring Jacob Steiner. That’s both a warning and a promise.

—David Willson

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The World Looked Away by Dave Bushy

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Dave Bushy’s The World Looked Away: Vietnam after the War: Quoc Pham’s Story (Archway Publishing, 422 pp. $39.99, hardcover; $25.99, paper; $2.40, Kindle) tells the story of Quoc Pham and his family during and after the 1975 communist takeover of South Vietnam.

Bushy is a consultant and executive coach for clients in aviation and other businesses. He served as a U.S. Army Intelligence staff officer in in Germany from 1975-77.

Quoc Pham served as a South Vietnamese Navy lieutenant. In April 1975, he opted to stay behind and fend for his family rather than accept a guaranteed escape to freedom.

The World Looked Away is very well researched and is well-illustrated with photos. It is a first-hand look at what happened to Quoc, his family, and others who opted to (or had to) stay in South Vietnam after the war ended. To this day, many Vietnamese refer to 1975-85 as “The Ten Dark Years.”

Each chapter begins with a quote from a Buddhist or Vietnamese proverb or from an individual.  For example:  “A little food while hungry is like a lot of food while full.” And “What money can’t buy, more money can.” Both are Vietnamese proverbs.

The World Looked Away centers on Quoc and his personal experiences, but to better understand the bigger picture, the narrative periodically breaks away to describe the experiences of other South Vietnamese people around Quoc. The love and camaraderie of Quoc, his wife King-Cuong, and their extended family is central to their survival and eventual success.

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When he was imprisoned in a re-education camp in Vietnam, a fellow prisoner told Quoc: “We lost the war. The key now, is not to conquer, but to survive.” This entire story, in fact, is one of survival. The brutality of the communist conquerors was harsh and sustained. It was imposed on the prisoners in the camps and on the population at large.  Its purpose was not re-education but retribution.

The World Looked Away is a must-read for anybody interested in seeing what can happen when freedom is lost, and what can be accomplished if you never give up.

It is riveting and pulsates with hope and fear, victory and defeat.

— Bob Wartman

Chasing Charlie by Richard Fleming

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War veterans are people who wrote a blank check payable to their nation for any amount, up to and including their lives. In this regard, Richard Fleming says that those who close with the enemy rank above support troops. He admits that men behind the lines sometimes endured bomb, mortar, and rocket attacks, but that exposure did not equate to facing an enemy.

Fleming makes his case in a memoir, Chasing Charlie: A Force Recon Marine in Vietnam (McFarland, 242 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, e book). Operating primarily from Da Nang and An Hoa during his post-Tet 1968-69 tour in the Vietnam War, Fleming took part in twenty-seven patrols, the most among his 1st Force Reconnaissance company.

Some men can tell you things you have heard before and make them sound brand new. Richard Fleming is one of them. His 20/10 vision exposes small details in the big picture. He sees inside men and situations. He portrays heroes and screw-ups.

Assigned to intelligence gathering missions, eight-man Force Recon teams helicoptered into areas controlled by the North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Their ultimate goal was to kidnap an NVA soldier worthy of interrogation, a feat they seldom accomplished.

Far too often, the team encountered superior-sized enemy forces. When they did, in an instant the hunter became the hunted. The unit did what they were trained to do: briefly engage, then run to the nearest landing zone for extraction or die. Fleming explains how the NVA slowly adjusted its counter-tactics to intercept recon teams.

Force Recon patrols lasted for indefinite periods, but usually stayed out for at least a week. In one instance, prolonged bad weather prevented helicopters from picking up Fleming’s team and the stranded men starved to exhaustion, barely able to walk.

Fleming’s most dynamic combat encounter occurred when his team joined with a contingent of grunt Marines and went head to head with NVA forces in a long and bloody battle that nobody won.

For Force Recon, fighting did not stop when team members returned to base. At that point, they encountered desk-bound leaders who, Fleming says, did not appreciate the recon units’ work in the field. The pettiness of officers and senior NCOs became tiresome and difficult to endure—even reading about it fifty years after the fact.

Fleming is particularly cogent in recalling his relationships with officers in the rear. He writes that he became a target for abuse because, while on guard duty, he accidentally embarrassed a drunken captain. Most of the staff officers sided with the captain and harassed Fleming with endless extra duties.

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A 1st Force Recon Marine unit in Vietnam

The book’s only flaw is that it contains too many typographical errors such as missing words, repeated words or phrases, and misspellings. I blame the publisher for this problem because it appears that editing changes were entered improperly. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading Chasing Charlie and learning about the idiosyncrasies of Force Recon operations from the perspective of an enlisted man.

“My knowledge of the war was limited to what I could see a few hundred feet in front of me,” Fleming says.

Within that range, he saw more than enough.

—Henry Zeybel

Happiness is a Warm Gun by Cheryl Breo

Cheryl Breo’s memoir, Happiness is a Warm Gun: A Vietnam Story (Tellwell Talent, 68 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $10.99, paper; $3.99 Kindle), starts with a sentence about her husband that is typical of much of this small book: “He would grab me by the neck with one hand wrapped around my throat and lift me straight off the ground, my feet dangling as he pushed me up against a wall, banging the back of my head against it until it nearly cracked.”

The book, Breo tells us, is “a personal account of my life. It bears no endorsement or authorization from the Beatles or Apple Corps.” The spine of this heavily illustrated little book is made up of quotes and references to the Beatles and their songs. The book focuses on the aftermath of Cheryl’s husband Ed’s  tours of duty in the Vietnam War,  something that brought “that war home to our front door.”

The Vietnam War “and all its hell,” Breo writes, “took the man I married and made him its victim, and in turn, he made me his victim.”  In the Breo household the refrigerator was almost empty, the bills were all past due, and eventually the couple lost their house and their pets and were forced to live in sketchy neighborhoods.

“Even my Liverpool lads reminded me that ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun,’” Breo writes. And then things got worse. Her daughter had a breakdown and Breo contemplated suicide before she took the Beatles’ advice, “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” and she used that ticket.

So this blackbird took her broken wings and flew into the light of the dark black night of freedom. Ed Breo finally resigned himself to acknowledging that he needed help and went to the VA. But the VA didn’t help him enough. The “stigma” of being a Vietnam War veteran, Breao writes, lingered “like the stench of the treatment they received from this country when they returned home.”

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A walk through the airport, she writes, “became a war zone of its own, as complete strangers yelled vulgar obscenities at him; calling him a ‘baby killer,’ a ‘murderer.’ “

In the dedication, Cheryl Breo writes that John, Paul, George and Ringo “saved my life many times over.”

She was friends with her husband until the day he died after the book was published in 2017.

How they did that, I don’t know, but buy this book and read it and find out how the Beatles were a big part of the therapeutic treatment that enabled them to survive being treated horribly.

—David Willson

And the Redbird Sings by Phillip Dowsett

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Phillip Dowsett tells the reader in the Preface to his memoir, And the Redbird Sings: You are not Alone. You Are Loved. There is Hope. (338 pp., $14.95, paper’ $4.99, Kindle), that he does not want his words to hurt anyone and that he does not want to contribute to the pain that most of us are already in.  Dowsett describes himself an old, blown-up war veteran, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and that this book was not easy for him to write.

While reading this book I had no notion that it had been easy to write or that Dowsett’s life had been easy to live. Far from it. He says he “was stuck in the darkness of my living nightmare for twelve years before a Veterans Outreach Center opened near my home.”  And that he’d survived “twenty-five years of frightening nightmares and suicidal depression.”

The painful memories of his childhood, of the Vietnam War, and of homelessness and an alcohol and drug-addicted life have been his to face and try to deal with. Dowsett, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, had served aboard a heavily armed Navy gunboat as a radioman in Vietnam and had been seriously wounded several times, ending up in Naval hospitals for weeks at a time.

Dowsett’s memoir takes place in 1967-68 when his unit, River Assault Squadron Nine, conducted search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. He was prepared for this service by an all-American boyhood that involved playing in creeks, fields, and woods where he lived the fantasies of being Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.

Dowsett also grew up with seventeen years of a violent father and an insane, violent mother. When he returned home after serving in Vietnam, he learned there would be no parades, that he would not be celebrated as a hero, and that even though he’d fought valiantly, he returned to be treated as a criminal. He learned quickly not to trust the VA, and to be wary of antiwar protesters who chanted at him about killing babies.

He’d spent almost two years living aboard a small ship, LST 1148, but nobody was interested in hearing about this aspect of his service. He saw antiwar protesters as rich college kids who scorned him for having served in the Navy. He’d spent his time in Vietnam bathing in Agent Orange-laced river water, and he would soon reap the effects of the poison he and millions of other Vietnam War veterans were been exposed to.

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Dowsett eventually learned that nothing good comes from alcohol and drugs. He managed—with the help of those who loved him—to turn over a great number of leaves and makes something good of himself.

This is a powerful story and one well worth reading. I enjoyed it and it held my attention.

—David Willson

Memory Lane: The 60’s by John Leone

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John Leone’s novel, Memory Lane: the 60’s (CreateSpace, 356 pp., $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a large book dealing with American popular culture, mostly from 1962-64. The Vietnam War does not rear its ugly head until near the end of the book.

To wit this passage from 1964: “Louie strolled down and gleefully told us that by this time next year, we’d be fighting a war in some place called Vietnam. It seemed the North Vietnamese had fired on one of our ships over in Asia.”

“By the end of 1965,” Leone writes, “almost all of us had received our notices.”

That’s exactly how it happened to me. My notice arrived late in December 1965, I accepted induction into the Army because that is what my grandfather, Homer Willson, had done. I didn’t wish to be a Marine like my father or to go into the Navy like my Uncle Roy.

Leone was told that because he broke his arm, when the cast came off and he’d done some rehab, he’d have a chance to re-enlist and be moved up to Specialist 6th class with a bonus of $8,000.  Not an offer that came my way. Far from it.

With the Vietnam War only arriving near the end, the bulk of the book deals with such early sixties subjects as rock and roll and there are references to “Teen Angel,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “My Boyfriend’s Back.” That old standby, “Soldier Boy,”  pops up on page 333.

This work of comedic fiction is described as being “fictionalized, some exaggerated and some (hopefully) funny.” That’s honest enough.  I would have liked Leone to tell us about his background. On his website, Leone reports that he served in the Army as a helicopter crew chief and mechanic in the Vietnam War. In this book he chooses not to let the reader know that. His previous book was a Vietnam War memoir, Us Guys: The Army in the 60s

This book would have benefited from photos, but alas, there are none. There are things to enjoy here, but the story is so personal that some things slide by with little impact.

I recommend this book to those who don’t let anything about the 60s elude them.

The author’s website is johnleonebooks.com

—David Willson

My Grandfather’s War by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper

My Grandfather’s War (EK Books, 32 pp., $17.99), tells a moving story (for six-to-nine year olds) that centers on a conversation between an eight-year-old girl and her grandfather after the child learns that he had been wounded in the Vietnam War. This picture book with minimal text is beautifully written by Glyn Harper, a post-Vietnam War veteran who is one of New Zealand’s best-known military historians. Jenny Cooper provides gentle, moving illustrations.

“Why did you go to fight in Vietnam?” the little girl asks. The grandfather’s answers are pitch perfect:

“My father and both my grandfathers had fought in a war and I thought that the war in Vietnam was my turn to go,” he says. “I thought the war would be exciting and that nothing bad would happen to me. I didn’t think I would get hurt.”

Those words capture the feelings that tens of thousands of young Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders had when contemplating what do do about the draft during the Vietnam War.

Grandfather did get hurt in Vietnam. The war he goes on to say, was “horrible.” The Vietnamese people “did not like us. They wanted us to leave. We were not really fighting the war for them. And we all knew we couldn’t win this war.”

He goes on to say that when the troops came home “no one thanked us for going to the war. They just wanted us to go away. Then a lot of us started to get sick from all the chemicals that had been used. Not just us; but our families, too. Some people have been so sick they can’t walk any more. Some have even died.”

Grandpa hits the nail on the head. And so does this gentle book, which has a post-script containing a very short and very good factual summary of the Vietnam War, concentrating on its legacy among Vietnam War veterans in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

—Marc Leepson